“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” ― John Edward Williams, Stoner
The three novels written by John Williams should be required reading for everyone. Stoner is the one I read first and perhaps for that reason, still love best. It is the life story of a young man sent to college to learn new farming techniques; instead, he falls in love with literature and becomes a professor. He has a disappointing marriage and a beloved daughter who is turned against him.
He watches young men sent off to two world wars, grows old, lives into his profession. This story is not about revealing plot but character. Williams observes the minutiae of Stoner’s life with a poet’s eye and is able to make even the simplest gestures express so much.
This book is wonderfully written. If you think a book with a sparse plot about a literature professor’s life sounds boring, let me assure you it is anything but that. In his keen observation, Williams reveals truths about the human spirit and our role in the universe that stay with me like a rock in my shoe, provoking me to reconsider its ideas just when I think they’ve finally been tossed loose.
“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” -Roger Ebert
As Ebert indicates, a movie (or book) about any subject, no matter how fascinating it sounds on the surface, can be crushingly dull if not done well. Likewise, a film (or book) about even the most ordinary daily routines can be transcendent in the right hands.
Fortunately for us, the life of William Stoner teaches us vivid truths about the human condition through a novel with a plot that would not be described as ‘exciting’. Don’t let that stop you; the prose of John Williams is often breathtaking and will stay with you long after that last page is turned.
Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles….Its hero is an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies. Yet the novel is utterly riveting, and for one simple reason: because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty that we cannot help but love them.
— Steve Almond, Tin House
Additional reading about Stoner:
- NY Review of Books: Stoner
- The Guardian: Stoner: The Must-Read Book of 2013
- The New Yorker: The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of
- NY Review of Books: Reading Book Guide for Stoner
TL;DR: Stoner by John Williams is an astonishing masterpiece that should be read by everyone.